Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dramaturg vs. dramaturge

Last week I had the opportunity to address a large group of avid theatergoers. Granted they were all of a certain age, but still I was surprised when they informed me I had rushed through a reference to dramaturgy without defining what it was.

Those of us who spend a lot of time inside theater production tend to take much for granted, true, but it still surprises me that nearly 50 years after the introduction of dramaturgs into American theater, the job description is all but invisible.
Within the island universe of professional dramaturgs, nothing can be taken for granted, including the spelling of the title. Oh, yes. You’ve been going around living your life blissfully unaware that there are annual brouhahas in certain circles about whether there should be an “e” on the end of dramaturg. (The Urban Dictionary even hyphenates the word — drama-turg. Ow.)

We can trace the term back to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the justly celebrated Age of Enlightenment playwright and theorist, who developed a spectrum of dramaturgical duties still in effect today. That’s Gotthold at left — talk about an egghead, eh?? Well, German colleagues tell me “dramaturg” roughly translates to “drama worker,” but the term definitely has broader connotations; to this day the French word for playwright is dramaturge (aha) and the Italian is drammaturgo.

Not that you asked, but the correct American word for a dramaturg is … dramaturg. How come? Because in relatively recent American usage, meaning mid-20th century till now, foreign terms have been brought into the language whole and entire. This is very much not the case with British usage, where the habit of imperialism extends even to everyday words. It is the Brits who have historically expressed contempt for the profession of dramaturgy (even while grudgingly admitting that they have the job all right, they just concede it to the purview of the literary manager -- a perfectly good English expression, thank you so much). And it is also the Brits who took it upon themselves to add a superfluous “e” to the end of “dramaturg,” thereby not only recuperating the term as British (or at least as less Teutonic), altering its very pronunciation whilst at it.

Something about theater folk makes them cling to the antiquarian — insisting on spelling theater theatre, for example, and preserving the word “actress” — and I understand that. But I draw the line at anglicizing imported terms. It’s just plain icky. To use a great American neologism.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Radio Golf signs off, Delve signs on

This Sunday, a celebrated event comes to a close here in Portland -- Portland Playhouse’s production of August Wilson’s Radio Golf, which has enjoyed a mostly sold-out run, in an excellent co-pro with the new BaseRoots Theatre Company. If you’re really, really lucky, you might be able to snag a ticket for this weekend and see what the fuss has been about.

In case you don’t make it, let me fill you in. August’s last play was widely regarded during its premiere runs (2005-2007) as latter-day Wilson. But its original director, Timothy Douglas, once told me that the day would come when it would be extolled as one of the playwright’s best works. Well, that time may be now. In an act of canny self-criticism, Portland Playhouse -- which occupies a former church in a marginalized neighborhood -- decided to mount a play that pits self-interest against deferred gratification and asks us to tally up the costs of progress for its own sake as opposed to preserving or restoring what we’ve already got.

Though like most of the 10 plays in August’s Century Cycle, Radio Golf is set in Pittsburgh -- specifically that city’s Hill District (where the playwright stands in the photo at right) -- attendees at the Portland production’s many talkback sessions have marveled that the play wasn’t written expressly for our own town, where issues of gentrification are rife. Plus this production was serendipitous for me personally because I already had it on my syllabus for the Delve course I started leading just this past Tuesday.

Delve, by the way, is the umbrella term for the reader's seminars offered through Literary Arts. These are devised as group explorations of literature; I’m not a teacher, but rather a “guide”; there are participants, rather than students. An ecumenical conception! When Jen MacGregor approached me about choosing something to delve into from dramatic literature, August -- a man I’d known in my grad school days, when his first plays were being developed and produced at Yale Rep -- was the natural choice.

Each seminar meets only six times, so I had to be selective about which of the 10 plays to exclude. But I knew from the start we had to end with Radio Golf. And thanks to Portland Playhouse, we really begin and end with the play, since virtually the entire class attended this remarkable production.

The seminar is a discovery process for me, too. Back in the day at the New Haven canning factory, some of us took August a little for granted; he was a journeyman artist, we assumed, just as we were. After all, not only did I see some of his early works’ premieres, I actually edited and did the layout for the first published editions of two of them. It has taken me 20+ years to see that just because I caught some typos or smoothed out prefatory material didn't make the plays were less effulgent. Now certain plays in particular -- Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, for one, and Gem of the Ocean, for another -- appear numinous, and all the more startling because their startling spans of human experience seemed housed within conventional dramaturgies. Yet for all that, they still shake your soul.

Now I'm looking forward to Tuesday evenings. Because I can’t wait to hear what my fellow travelers discover each week at Delve.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Lovely monsters

Excited as I am to be going home today, I have to admit it was sad leaving the theater for the final time last night. Walking along the banks of the Iowa River, watching the black water flowing languidly by, stopping on the bridge to look at where the river curves out of sight, looking back to the theater lobby still mobbed with thrilled attendees – I’m going to miss all that.

Since I last wrote, I saw Lisa Leaverton’s new piece, One Plum. (Lisa’s play Why Love Doesn’t Recognize Its Name appeared in PCS’s Now Hear This series a couple of years ago.) Plum transformed one of the university’s several theaters into an amazing environment representing – well, the environment. The actors of One Plum created a visual and aural landscape in and around the audience that took us rapidly through season after season, reflecting issues along the way such as climate change and pollution. Nature’s hurly-burly (and humankind’s part in altering it) was treated comically but pointedly, the main spines being a human’s couples attempts to reproduce themselves and the struggles of a colossal plum tree to bear fruit. Incredibly inventive and ever-morphing, the experiential nature of the piece was a delight.

As if in response to One Plum, the next day’s reading of a new Andrew Saito play, The Patron Saint of Monsters, also looked at some of nature’s side trips as manifested in human beings. Its first part chronicled the making of an actual medieval saint; part 2 explored her elevation to cult status. And in the final section we see how she became associated with healing and/or comforting misfits of all stripes – while simultaneously displacing the more pagan “monsters” already around. The photo above shows you a gaggle of schiachpercht, the indigenous folk who don't cotton to the Christian incursions.

Following Andrew was a new play by Tali Ariav, Bloodlines, a harrowing duologue between a hospitalized girl and a soldier who may or may not spring from her fevered imagination. I was so shattered by this play that I left the theater even as the applause was in progress to go outside in the dark and just be with the experience of the play. (And nearly missed that night’s adventure of hanging out at The Sanctuary, a theater speakeasy that was popular back when James was a student at U of I – something reassuring about that.)

Friday night was Joe Luis Cedillo’s new play, Columpio. If you can envision Arthur Miller’s family dramas translocated to a Chicano family living near Newhall in the 1990s, you’ll get a sense of how Joe’s play works. Spanning three generations of increasing assimilation, with all the credits and debits that implies, this was a deeply felt portrait of a family in crisis. I hope this play gets produced soon in Los Angeles, where it could be a watershed piece of theater.

Saturday we were treated to brunch at one of the playwrights’ home – a 14-acre farm with sheep, goats (we got to feed goatlings less than a week old), and disturbingly large hens. Plus bovines. The place sported a gargantuan barn and a gorgeous farmhouse that date back to the mid-19th century. This playwright, Janet Schlapkohl, scrambled eggs for me at one point that she had just taken from the henhouse. Let me tell you: fresh eggs are light year apart from what you get in the supermarket. These eggs were so flavorful that they needed no seasonings. And yellow

We returned to see Janet’s play Tro Musikk, a warm, big-hearted piece about upper-Midwesterners suffused with Scandinavian culture and inflected with those charming accents and quaint expressions (“you betcha!”) that we associate with cheese country. Not that the play mocked those people or that part of the world; on the contrary, I wanted to move in, to love among them from now on. I loved every minute of this play. Laughed like a macaw throughout, only to be surprised and touched – frequently! – by the sheer humanity of the characterizations. Even though the play is framed by the supernatural (troll-like figures lurk in the moods and grin at human foibles), ultimately the play was about forgiveness and redemption. Yes, the big themes. Powerful stuff. Which is easier to get your arms around when you’re accompanied by an accordion.

The Festival crescendoed last night with the premiere of Achilles, Scourge of Man, an outrageously rock and roll spectacle about the famous warrior that seem to happen now and back then and throughout time. As with One Plum, the theater was transformed for the occasion. Powerful lights beamed down from the top of the theater, filling the cavernous space; searchlights continually scanned cut the audience; the sound of helicopters approached and receded. So once again, to enter the theater was to enter the play. Tricked out with video screens, supertitles and a rock score that shook the risers, this was a balls-out production effort that grabbed me by the throat and demanded (and got) my attention every minute of the story.

As outstanding as the production effort was, however, it would not have mattered had Kevin Artigue’s script been any less provocative. This writer knows how to assault his audience with language, but also how to drop it down to a whisper, and when to provide the palate cleansers that let you savor new sensations. Indeed, “sensation” is the perfect word for this work, which had lots to express about men who treat war like an epic video game. (Kevin has worked with the brilliant Ken Roht, by the way, whose seemingly reckless extravagance informed this play.)

Like I said: a terrific year for the Playwright’s Workshop’s New Play Festival. I got a great glimpse into where theater may be headed. And I’m encouraged.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hermanas, Piranhas and AutoErotica

Yep – the above-captioned items are only part of what’s going, right here in Iowa City. At this writing, I’m midway through the Playwrights’ Workshop’s New Play Festival at the University of Iowa. It’s an amazingly broad spectrum of content, style and form, just as you’d expect – and hope.

Festivities kicked off with a reading of a new play by Louisa Hill, called Child’s Pose, that uses competitive track, yoga and ballet as indices of generational difference. And a full production of a new play by Tony Meneses entitled Las Hermanas Padilla. Tony’s play was a rare treat, with a cast of 10 (all female), two directors, and a kaleidoscopic story that was almost always in motion, which of course threw the few quiet moments into sharp relief. Focusing on an extended family made up entirely of sisters-in-law, its repeating premise about the war-time deaths of their husbands – deaths whose advents are delivered one by one through carrier pigeons, who drop death on the sisters like inverse paracletes – was poignant without ever being sentimental. The play was suffused with a magic that seemed native to this (unnamed) land: a pregnancy that goes on indefinitely, a stigmata-like wound that provides the sisters with ink.

Sheela Kangal, whom many of you will remember her from TCG days, debuted a remarkable monologue she calls Norm, which explores one character’s identities past and present and yet to come. And Jen Silverman – a writer already making a name for herself at noted developmental from New Georges to Seven Devils -- premiered a disturbing new piece titled Gilgamesh’s Game, about a death cult whose apotheosis is to achieve “terminus.” In this endgame, players started by facing smaller fears (scorpions, leeches, piranhas) and progress until … well, until game over. But what happens when the cult’s originator becomes its first heretic? This stylish, darkly droll play devolves around three characters who each having very different reasons for playing.

And Jess Foster’s Hard and Fast brings a very special fetish into sweetly comic perspective. Subtitled “a love story,” let’s just say I’ll never look at an Austin-Healy 3000 quite the same way again. Or a Chevrolet Fleetline.

By the way, I share the privilege of seeing all this fun new theater with three other “Festival Guests,” as we’re called: the pulchritudinous Carson Kreitzer (whose indelible play Enchantment will be remembered by JAW devotees); the classy and breathtakingly insightful Megan Monaghan; and the absolutely fabulous Beth Blickers, who is America’s answer to Peggy Ramsay. (And I’m the only man, ya.) Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

In my tribe

Go to most any writers’ conference and a peculiar strain of war stories often surfaces: viz., tales of the writing group from hell. So plentiful and outrageous are these stories (the curmudgeon who never met a phrase he liked, the woman who wrote solely about elves, etcetcetc) that I actually ducked invitations to writing groups for years.

But I began rethinking my anthrophobia this past fall. At Wordstock I got to meet most of the Seattle 7, a group of amazing writers who met for years and wound up all getting published at the same time. And I organized a panel that was ostensibly about playwriting, but which wound up getting populated by several members of Portland’s Big Brain Trust, including Marc Acito, Storm Large and Cynthia Whitcomb. All these writers clearly had tremendous admiration and respect and bonhomie for each other. You could tell from the way they badgered each other mercilessly in public. I knewI wanted that.

Well. Put an idea out there, Madame Blavatsky sez, and a clarion call ripples through the universe. Post-Wordstock, in a chance conversation with a playwright I know, it came out that we have both been writing novels — for years. We knew we needed the support of a group, but my friend was equally leery of them; she had not had great experiences joining extant meetings. So we started collecting people. We discovered a local director whose first book comes out this fall and who was well into her second manuscript; and then another playwright, who had recently realized her latest script was crying out for a long-form treatment.

VoilĂ  — a gang of four. We’ve been meeting weekly for months now. And while this blog may have languished as a consequence, hey! The novel’s coming along great. The simple fact that I’m committed to providing my gangsters with 10 pages a week whether those pages are gibberish or gold, has been near-miraculous for this scribbler. What I was missing from my writing regimen all along is now embodied in these weekly sessions: an audience. A respondent audience, not a vague abstraction.

What’s fun, too, is that we’re all refugees from the theater. Not that any of us have abandoned the form — quite the contrary. But our theater backgrounds inform our writing in surprising ways. The compression of dialogue, for one. And perhaps even more importantly, our instincts for what constitutes a “scene” in a narrative is, well … theatrical. Aristotelian. Beginnings/middles/ends. We understand how images — and not just words — can give a story tremendous unity.

I love my small tribe and our as-yet unnamed cabal. (Suggestions?) Stay tuned for more dispatches from the trenches.